UNITED States President Barack Obama underscored Washington’s “rock solid commitment to the defense of the Philippines” as he and President Benigno Aquino III vowed to halt further Chinese reclamation in disputed territories in the region.
The two leaders made the pronouncement after an hour-long meeting Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting.
“As a treaty ally, we have a rock solid commitment to the defense of the Philippines. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder: balikatan. Together, we support a rule-based order in the region, which is critical to regional security and the global economy,” Obama said.
“We are increasing our maritime security assistance to the Philippines to record levels, including two new vessels. We discussed the impact of China’s reclamation and construction activities on regional stability. We agreed on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction, and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,” the US leader added.
Aquino stressed that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea must be “continuously upheld, consistent with international law.”
The Philippines has filed an arbitration case before the United Nations against Beijing’s nine-dash-line claim which covers the entire South China Sea.
Other claimants to the territories, believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits, include Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
Aquino said the other claimants “are very close to a decision” on whether to file a case before the UN similar to the Philippines’ own arbitration, which has been widely supported by Washington.
As this developed, Obama expressed confidence that the Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will soon hurdle the Supreme Court amid questions on its constitutionality.
“Our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, when implemented, will bring our military even closer together, and we are especially committed to ensuring maritime security in the region, including freedom of navigation,” Obama said.
“Obviously, the Philippines has to go through its process in the Supreme Court review, but we are confident that it is going to get done and we are going to be able to implement effectively the provisions and the ideas that have come forward during the course of these discussions,” Obama added.
Aquino said American presence in Philippine military bases will ensure regional stability.
On Tuesday, Obama announced the Philippines would get a decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter to be turned into a new warship that will “bolster the Navy’s ability to conduct long-endurance patrols” as well as a research vessel to help the Philippines map its territorial waters.
The Philippines will also receive a record $79 million in assistance to bolster maritime security this financial year, the biggest recipient in Southeast Asia.
Obama’s demand that China end artificial island building in the South China Sea increased pressure on Beijing at the annual Apec gathering that is usually focused exclusively on trade issues.
The territorial row over the strategically vital South China Sea, as well as terrorism concerns following last week’s deadly Paris rampage, have dominated the build-up to this year’s meeting in the Philippines.
China has repeatedly insisted its disputes with its Asian neighbors over the sea, home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes, should not be on the Apec agenda.
But just hours before the two-day summit started, Obama voiced concerns over giant land reclamation works by China that have created new islands close to the Philippines.
China reacted angrily on Wednesday to Obama’s efforts to bolster US allies in the dispute, as it insisted its construction work in the contested areas was “lawful, justified and reasonable.”
“If there is something that should stop, it is the United States should stop playing up the South China Sea issue, stop heightening tensions in the South China Sea,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.
Earlier, the Chinese government also expressed disappointment after Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida brought up the issue of territorial dispute in the South China Sea on the sidelines of the Apec meeting.
The Japanese foreign minister raised the issue during a discussion with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, where both foreign ministers discussed the significant progress that would strengthen the strategic partnership between the Philippines and Japan.
Del Rosario and Kishida also talked on the growing bilateral cooperation between the two countries, including the maritime security and the West Philippines Sea that dissatisfied the Chinese government.
“Japan is not a party concerned in the South China Sea issue. Instead of watching its words and deeds, Japan has been hyping up the South China Sea issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in a statement posted on its Chinese Embassy website.
“The Chinese side is dissatisfied with what the Japanese side has done,” Hong said.
“Japan’s relevant words and deeds run counter to the momentum of improving bilateral ties and undercut regional stability and development,” he added.
DFA spokesperson Charles Jose earlier vowed not to comment on the territorial dispute, he, however, said that the Philippines will not stop others from calling out China over its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
In a speech at a business forum in Manila ahead of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not directly mention the territorial disputes.
But he did call on Pacific nations to resolve their differences “through dialogue and consultation.”
“We must focus on development and spare no effort to foster an environment of peace conducive to development and never allow anything to disrupt the development process,” he said.
Obama’s speech to the business forum focused mostly on the need for the world to tackle global warming, insisting fighting climate change would not hurt the economy.
“We have to break out of the mindset that when we are doing something about climate change, we slow growth,” Obama said.
While in Manila, Obama is also trying to promote a giant free trade pact signed last month that groups 12 Pacific nations but excludes China.
Obama was met with the leaders of the other Trade-Pacific Partnership nations on the sidelines of Apec on Wednesday.
But in his speech, Xi urged Asian economies to sign up to its own free trade agreement, warning rival pacts risked hurting the regional economies.
“With various new regional free trade arrangements cropping up there have been worries about the potential of fragmentation,” Xi said.
“We therefore need to accelerate the realization of FTAAP and take regional economic integration forward.”
The FTAAP is the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which China launched as Apec host last year. However, it is only in the preliminary planning stage.
Obamas’ trip to Asia is the ninth of his presidency so far, and he had hoped it would showcase US focus on the region and not just on the Middle East or Europe.
But once again his pivot has been blunted by events elsewhere, with Paris mourning the loss of at least 129 people in a rampage claimed by the Islamic State group.
A draft of the Apec declaration due to be released on Thursday condemned the Paris attacks, describing them as “atrocities that demand a united voice from the global community.”
Philippine authorities, which had already deployed more than 20,000 security forces for the summit, said security had been ratcheted up even higher because of the Paris attacks.
About 100 protesters opposed to Apec’s free-trade agenda clashed with helmeted police carrying riot shields just outside the summit venue on Wednesday. With Vito Barcelo, AFP
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